Archive for the 'Storytelling' Category

Open minds by touching hearts

Dennis

Minds are very hard things to open, and the best way to open the mind is through the heart. —Jonathan Haidt

Leaders extend their influence when they speak to the heart as well as the head.

Human beings are motivated at least as much by their emotions as they are by logic and rationality. While research, data, and other forms of evidence have their place in improvement efforts, by themselves they are insufficient.

Emotions elicited through storytelling, poetry, and the use of imagery can inspire and provide a context for the meaningful use of data and professional literature.

Today I will speak to the heart as well as the head in an upcoming interaction with colleagues, students, or parents.

[This “meditation” is one of 180 (one for every day of the traditional school year) provided in Leadership 180: Daily Meditations on School Leadership, my most recent book, published by Solution Tree.]

Words can injure, or uplift and inspire

Dennis

A hospice patient in her 60s whose life story I was videotaping told a sad story from her childhood about an adult who had said cruel things about her, words that produced a depth of pain that was still sufficiently strong that she felt compelled to talk about it at the end of her life.

“Some people say that sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can never hurt us,” the patient told future generations of her family. “I want everyone who sees this to remember that that is not true. Words can hurt us.”

Words matter not only because they affect our feelings but because they can alter how we view ourselves—whether we see ourselves as valued or unimportant, respected or disrespected, competent or incompetent, included or excluded.

While words can injure, they can also uplift and inspire. Most of us can recall things that significant adults in our lives said that encouraged and sustained us—the right words at the right time.

The words spoken by teachers, principals, and parents can have a particularly strong resonance across a lifetime, for good or for ill.

Which words encourage and sustain you? Which words disempower?

The power of storytelling

Dennis

Stories are a wonderful way to teach and to influence people.

That’s particularly true when the stories are drawn from our daily lives and reveal the storyteller’s attentiveness to things that  the rest of us often overlook.

Here’s an excellent example from David Fife, a school administrator in the Thames Valley, Ontario, School Board.

I encourage you to read David’s post because of what he notices in the interaction between an “elder” and a young trainee in a grocery store and the important lesson he extracts (take pride in everything you do) that has implications for both our professional and personal lives.

The greatest gift

Dennis

One of the greatest gifts we can give others is to bear witness to their lives.

One of the most important and readily available ways we can bear witness is to evoke and listen to the stories people tell that reveal what it has been like for them to live their lives.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day in the United States, a day that can serve as a prompt to honor and express our gratitude to those who came before us in our families and communities by inviting their storytelling.

To that end StoryCorp proposes that family members accept its invitation to “The Great Thanksgiving Listen” in which a StoryCorps app is used to record elders’ stories.

“The app helps users select questions and record and then upload interviews to the StoryCorps archive in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress,” NPR noted in its report on the project.

My experience as a hospice volunteer videotaping the life stories of patients near the end of their lives revealed to me the power of such storytelling for both the patient and for family members.

Take a moment this weekend (and throughout the year) to ask the elders in your life to share a few of their stories.

Include the teachers or mentors who were important to you  in your list of those you might interview.

I promise that you will cherish those conversations for years to come.

The power of stories to influence

Dennis Sparks

Here are three things I think are true.

1. Human beings like stories and are often profoundly affected by them.

2. When school leaders attempt to influence others they almost always rely on “facts” to change minds.

3. A well-told story or two can be more influential than a tall pile of research reports or an endless procession of PowerPoint slides. (That does not mean, of course, that professional literature cannot be influential when judiciously used.)

Here are some examples of stories that can be influential:

• a story about a student who learned something because of a new teaching method he or she was previously unable to grasp,

• a teacher who had reservations about a new practice, experimented with it in her classroom, and is now enthusiastic about its benefits for students,

• a personal story about learning something important and challenging, a story in which you move from initial resistance to experimentation to mastery, and/or

• a time during which you struggled and failed to learn something and the lessons you drew from the experience.

While personal stories are usually more effective, generic stories can sometimes be useful in making an important point.

Here’s an example provided by Lolly Daskal, the details of which could be tailored to fit many circumstances.

What kinds of stories do you find most effective in influencing students, colleagues, and supervisors?

Believing is seeing

Dennis Sparks

Most of view ourselves as rational, so it makes sense to believe that we and others make or should make decisions based on logic and evidence.

In reality, though, beliefs and feelings play a large role in our decisions, often without our conscious awareness. Our beliefs and feelings, in fact, often determine the “facts” we see.

So, instead of “seeing is believing,” in many circumstances “believing is seeing.”

That’s why  logical, fact-laden attempts at persuasion are less effective than direct experiences, stories, and images.

That doesn’t mean that research, evidence, and logic have no purpose in faculty meetings and other venues where important professional learning occurs and decisions are made.

But it does mean that while these methods may be necessary to persuade others to commit to a new course of action and to sustain their commitment, they are seldom sufficient.

Can you think of times when decisions (either good ones or not) were more influenced by anecdotes or experiences than by evidence and logic?

“Every encounter matters”: An interview with Chris Kennedy

Dennis Sparks

When I am asked to name a school system leader who is an exemplar in the use of blogging and Twitter to further educational purposes, Chris Kennedy is the first person that comes to mind.

Chris is superintendent of schools in the West Vancouver School District in British Columbia. Chris’  blog, the “Culture of Yes” and tweets (@chrkennedy) are a model of of how school leaders can use social/learning media to teach, encourage, celebrate, and link educators within and beyond West Vancouver. As a result, Chris’ influence is felt not only in British Columbia but throughout North America and around the world.

So I was particularly eager to see Chris’ responses to these questions.

What are the two or three most important things you’ve learned about school change from participating in it, observing it, or studying it?

I have learned that every school needs to go through its own process.  It can’t be speeded up because we need to have the conversations. We can’t microwave school growth and evolution.

Context really matters – from where schools are located, who is on the staff to what the history is of a school.  In particular, we need to honour a school’s history.

I would also say that every little encounter matters.  As a school leader a meeting might be a low priority for you, but it may be the most important meeting for the person you are with.  You build credibility with the little things.

What would you say to a principal or teacher leader in his or her first year on the job?

Smile and listen.  As nervous as you might be in the new role, others are also anxious about what it will be like to work with you.  The first thing you need to do is reach out and build relationships.

From your perspective what seem to be the qualities of leaders who thrive in their work? 

They are continually curious and comfortable with ambiguity.  They understand that doing things differently is not a sign of weakness, nor does it mean that we were doing things “wrong” in the past. Instead, it’s part of the rapid change we are seeing in education and our society.

What thoughts do you have about how leaders might develop those qualities?

I think leaders need to step back and consciously let go of control.  This can be terribly difficult, but something that can be practiced.  Leaders need to consciously give up control – even over small things to start – and to be curious rather than focused on trying to be right.

There seems to be agreement that experimentation and risk-taking on the part of leaders is desirable. In what ways were you encouraged to step out of your comfort zone, and what was it like for you to do so?

Risk-taking and experimentation are absolutely part of what we need in our leaders.

I have been fortunate to be surrounded by people that encouraged a culture of risk taking.  As a new teacher I was encouraged to take on new courses and teacher leadership, then encouraged to take on new roles. In turn, I have tried to do this for others and model it through my “Culture of Yes” blog.

It is terribly scary to take risks. I tell leaders to remember how risk makes us feel as we encourage our students and those we work with to take risks.

A common concern expressed by both new and experienced principals and teacher leaders has to do with teachers who are reluctant to engage in new practices. What ideas or practices would you offer to those leaders?

I think teachers are willing to engage in new practices if they believe the practices will make a difference for students.  I don’t know any teachers who do not want to improve the life chances of their students, and teachers are willing to go above and beyond when they believe doing things differently will be better for those they work with.

I think we need to keep the focus on students – how will using technology in the classroom benefit students?  How will an inquiry-based approach better engage those in our classrooms?  How will a commitment to self-regulation better prepare students to be ready to learn?  We can get caught up in bigger conversations around new practices, but we should always come back to students.

From your experience, what are the most important things a leader can do to influence teaching and learning?

School leaders should focus on being learning leaders themselves.  They should position themselves as the lead-learner in the school.  Principals and teacher leaders should model learning and be continually focused on improving learning for students.

It sounds obvious and simple, but we often get distracted.  That’s why I encourage school leaders to focus on a small number of things that resonate with teachers across subject areas, such as using inquiry.  It doesn’t mean this is all that is important, but it is crucial to have a focus.

I am also curious about what you regard as the areas of greatest leverage in your own work as a system leader.

I think the greatest power I have is as a connector and a storyteller.  I have the amazing benefit  of being in all of our schools and talking with students, teachers, administrators, trustees, parents, and the community.

Sometimes teachers and schools feel like they are on their own – I can help connect them and remind them they are part of something bigger.  As we move in the same direction with a fair bit of flexibility and autonomy we are far more than independent contractors who share a geographic region.

 


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